A Roman Catholic activist group said on Tuesday that Pope Francis was slow as head of the Argentine church to act against sexual abuse by clergy and urged him to apologize for what it called church protection for two priests later convicted of sexually assaulting children.
A lawyer for some of the victims, meanwhile, said the pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had not met with or helped victims and charged that mid-level church officials who covered up the problem have not lost their jobs.
The Buenos Aires archbishop’s office did not immediately comment on the complaints, which came as Francis was being installed as pope in a Vatican ceremony seen around the world.
The US-based Bishop Accountability group cited the cases of two priests: Father Julio Cesar Grassi, who ran the “Happy Children” foundation and was convicted of pedophilia in 2008, and Father Napoleon Sasso, convicted in 2007 of abusing girls at a soup kitchen in suburban Buenos Aires, where he was assigned after being accused of pedophilia elsewhere.
Grassi is currently free pending appeal, thanks partly to a court filing on his behalf by the Argentine church, which was headed by Bergoglio as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio oversaw Argentina’s bishops conference when Sasso was assigned to the soup kitchen at a chapel,the victims’ attorney, Ernesto Moreau, said.
Bishop Accountability co-director Anne Doyle said those events show Bergoglio was behind the curve in the Catholic Church’s global struggle to deal with sex abuse by its priests, which erupted in 2002 after thousands of cases became public in the US and around the world.
“We would be alarmed if Archbishop Bergoglio had done this in the ’60s or ’70s. That would be sad and disturbing, but the fact that he did this just five years ago, when other bishops in other countries were meeting victims and implementing tough reporting laws, it puts him behind some of his American counterparts, that’s for sure,” Doyle said.
The group said that to send a message of zero tolerance in the church around the world, the new pope should tell the Buenos Aires archdiocese to release the complete files on the Grassi and Sasso cases, publicly identify any other priests who are “credibly accused” of sexual abuse and endorse mandatory reporting by church officials to law enforcement of suspected abuse.
The pope himself should admit that he was wrong to defend abusive priests, apologize to the victims of Grassi and Sasso, and offer to meet with the victims, the group said.
Noting the pope’s coronation, Doyle said: “The victims of these two priests are the very children of God about whom he was speaking in his homily today.”
“They are the most vulnerable of the poor. We hope that Francis will seize this as a priority, and reach out to the victims and rectify his terrible insensitivity to them when he was archbishop,” Doyle said.
No one has presented evidence that Bergoglio was directly involved covering up sex abuse. However, Moreau said that Bergoglio, as the top authority for the Argentine church, was ultimately responsible for the treatment of the victims, who have yet to get medical treatment or compensation.
“Bergoglio has been the strongest man in the Argentine church since the beginning of this century,” Moreau said, and yet “the leadership of the church has never done anything to remove these people from these places and neither has it done anything to relieve the pain of the victims.”
At the Vatican, Francis will be ultimately responsible for the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which last year told the church’s bishops conferences around the globe to draw up comprehensive guidelines to deal with sexually abusive clergy. It gave the bishops a year to draft guidelines to better screen priests, root out potential abusers, educate laity about the problem and require bishops to report suspected abuse to civil authorities where civil reporting laws exist.
The pope’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, said before Bergoglio was elected pope last week that he had drawn an increasingly tough line on clergy abuse. Bergoglio insisted that accused priests face trial and imposed a thorough screening process in an attempt to weed out future problems, Rubin said.
In last year’s book On Heaven and Earth, in which Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka engage in a religious dialogue, the future pope said the church should not ignore the sexual abuse of minors by priests.
“When that happens, we must never turn a blind eye. You cannot be in a position of power and destroy the life of another person,” he said, adding that priests guilty of such offenses should be stripped of their right to perform priestly duties.
However, Bishop Accountability said the cases of Grassi and Sasso show that Bergoglio and the Argentine church were slow to recognize the problem and act against it.
Grassi was well-known in Buenos Aires for persuading celebrities to donate to his Happy Children foundation, which ran orphanages and social outreach programs. Before he was convicted of abusing a child, Grassi praised Bergoglio for “never abandoning him.” He is free while appealing the conviction.
Sasso was assigned to the soup kitchen, which was at a chapel where his bedroom shared the only bathroom, after living in a home for wayward priests where he had been sent after accusations of pedophilia were raised against him in remote San Juan Province.
“The bathroom had two doors. The girls would come in through the outside door and the priest would bring them into his bedroom through the other, sexually abusing the girls,” Moreau said. “These were really poor people, who were there for free meals while their parents worked. They found an enormous amount of child pornography on his computer, semen, condoms.”
It was a medical priest and a nun who discovered that Sasso had abused 25 girls aged three to 16, but when they informed church officials, they were told to “remain patient” and nothing was done, Moreau said. Eventually, they sought out higher authorities and the case was taken up by the criminal courts, but the mid-level officials who covered up are still in their posts, while the priest and nun were forced to work elsewhere, the lawyer said.
Sasso later became a fugitive and hid out for a year inside church property in the same diocese where the abuse occurred, Moreau said.
Sasso now gets one-day monthly furloughs from prison after serving half of a 17-year sentence for abusing five girls.
In the US, confidential files on hundreds of pedophile priests have been released either through civil litigation, settlements or court orders. The contents have revealed how top church officials worked behind the scenes to control the sex abuse scandal and keep it from authorities, as well as parishioners.
Similar broad releases of confidential priest files have not happened in Latin America, where victims are less likely to come forward and even less likely to file a civil claim.
Ramon Luzarraga, an expert on the Catholic Church in Latin America, said justice has come more slowly in Argentina in part because its society has until recently avoided public discussions of sexual humiliation, which was used as a tactic in the “dirty war” waged against leftists by the 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship.
“Argentina’s democracy is still comparatively young and, compared to the United States, people are not as acclimated to being outspoken in the face of injustice,” he said.
That leaves clergy abuse victims in the US and their supporters to hold the pope to account on questions of priest abuse everywhere, said Luzarraga, who teaches theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
The hundreds of confidential priest personnel files that have been made public in the US have bolstered critics because they can see with their own eyes how the church in the US dealt with abusive priests, he added.
“That is a big difference. Information is power,” he said.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.